I think it’s safe to say the color most closely associated with Valentine’s Day is red. Red hearts, red roses, red wine. Or in the case of my 2003 Valentine’s Day, red flags.
I was never super-into Valentine’s Day — at least not after elementary school; I would actually take a lot of care choosing my mass-marketed, perforated Valentines at CVS and deciding which “Garfield & Friends” character made the most sense to give to which classmate. Once I got to middle school, I quickly realized it served as an opportunity to feel rejected if I didn’t have a boyfriend or disappointed if I did and he didn’t put as much thought into a gift as I did. (I’m sorry, but a personalized dude-bracelet from Things Remembered is a way more thoughtful gift than a made-in-China teddy bear from Drug Fair.)
Come high school, Valentine’s Day just became uncomfortable. My freshman year, a sophomore boy who had a girlfriend snuck an extremely intense, handwritten poem into my backpack — my first taste of how terrible people can be to their significant others on a day that’s supposed to celebrate them. After that, I don’t even think I acknowledged Valentine’s Day until my sophomore year of college, when I bought the guy I’d been dating for two weeks a frame for his favorite picture of him and his best friend, and he bought me a white negligee; that sufficiently creeped out sexually inexperienced 19-year-old me.
Because every day is Valentine’s Day when you’re in love, I got engaged on a random October day in 2002, at age 23, to a guy I’d been dating for only about half a year. We just knew, you guys, we just knew. Terry (most definitely not his actual name) and I had met through The Onion‘s online personals (do those even exist anymore?) before Internet dating was even remotely normal, and in addition to all the lovey-dovey stuff we were pretty sure we were genuinely feeling, we were intent on proving that rushing into marriage in one’s mid-20s after meeting through a satirical-news website was a totally reasonable thing to do and also probably the wave of the future.
The following Valentine’s Day would be our first together. Neither of us cared about it, but in the grips of excited fiancéehood, I thought, hey, why not do a little something special? My idea: Print out and frame the deactivated Onion dating profiles that brought us together.
A few months earlier, I had made the mistake of forgetting to deactivate my profile and was very publicly reminded to when, early in the summer, I became a “featured single” in Time Out New York, which mined The Onion and Nerve for its personals. Terry’s profile was also still active at the time; it was our first time doing online dating and we honestly just forgot that we’d have to proactively disable our listings. After my embarrassing appearance in TONY, he and I both turned off our profiles. We actually took turns doing so at the same computer, and he even unsolicitedly told me his password as a symbol of his trustworthiness.
On the afternoon of February 14, while Terry was at work at a wine shop in our neighborhood, I signed back into The Onion personals for the first time since I’d deactivated my account back in the summer. I figured if I couldn’t find his inactive profile by directly typing in its old URL, it would be okay to sign into his account using the password he’d told me — just this once — so I could access the old profile and print it out. Even the idea of innocently doing that for the sake of the gift made me uncomfortable, though, so I was relieved when, after typing in the URL of his old profile while still signed into my account, it was viewable.
The relief immediately turned to nauseated distress when I realized the profile was still active. I had seen him deactivate it months ago; either he hadn’t done it correctly, or he’d reactivated it at some point since we’d gotten engaged.
It soon became clear that it was the latter, because the content of his profile was completely, horribly, devastatingly different.
“I’m engaged to an idiot who doesn’t know the difference between merlot and cabernet,” it read. “I’m miserable. If you’re an oenophile and aren’t put off by my current situation, let’s talk.”
It took every muscle in my body to keep vomit down; I literally clenched my feet to help stop myself from throwing up. My face was tingling painfully, like when a limb falls asleep. I was too upset to cry — yet.
Feeling like my body was being held together by safety pins, I called Terry. I knew he wasn’t allowed to have his cell phone on the store floor, so I wasn’t surprised when it went to voicemail.
“Terry, you need to come home as soon as possible,” I said, knowing the anger I was trying to keep contained was clear in my voice. “If they let anyone go home early tonight, please make sure it’s you.”
As I waited for him to come home, I started digesting what I’d seen. My fiancé hated me, apparently due to my wine ignorance, and he was actively looking to either cheat on me or leave me for someone else. He hadn’t let on to me that he was unhappy, that my lack of interest in wine or anything else about me was enough to do something so cruel.
An hour later, and shortly after I’d finally started crying, Terry walked through the door.
“What’s wrong?” he said, seeming genuinely concerned.
I handed him a printout of his profile — a much different printout than I had intended to frame for Valentine’s Day.
“What is this?” he said, playing dumb.
“Oh, come on,” I said, my volume already bordering on a yell.
“Uh… wow,” he started. “One of the guys must have done this as a joke,” meaning one of the guys in his sketch-comedy group. He knew I was insecure about whether or not they liked me, so they were an easy scapegoat.
He looked up at me, and one of his eyes crossed. That was his tell. That was what I’d come to identify as the sign he was lying.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Terry, don’t lie to me,” I shouted, my face red and wet.
He was quiet for a while. I could tell he just wanted to run, or at least go into a different room, but we lived in a studio apartment. If he felt stuck with me before, I imagine it was infinitely intensified in those moments.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said, sighing. “I’ve been freaking out lately.”
“Why not tell me?” I think I was screeching at this point because our dog, Max, had hidden in the bathroom. “Why do this? Why call me an idiot and look for someone to cheat on me with, and on a public website? The one we met on!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said. He looked like he might start crying, too.
“Do you want to marry me?” It was a question, but my inflection went down at the end of the sentence.
Without hesitation, he said, “Yes.”
“I don’t believe you,” I replied.
And I shouldn’t have. He wasn’t ready to marry me or anyone else. He wasn’t ready to admit that there were many things about me — many non-wine-related things — that he didn’t like. But after several days of his timid attentiveness, I forgave him.
And after several months of trying to forget a flag so red it was practically on fire, I married him.
I think we actually did love each other, at least a little bit; but more than anything, I think we wanted to not be wrong. We wanted to believe two twentysomethings who couldn’t even make ends meet had made the right decisions, no matter how hasty and immature and delusional those decisions were.
About two years after we got married, we separated — and far more amicably than we’d spent the second year of our marriage. Our goodwill toward each other had run out, and we had matured enough to admit we weren’t right for each other and never had been.
Although I know, looking back, that I should have swallowed my pride and called off the wedding after that Valentine’s Day, there’s no point wasting time regretting how things panned out.
I’m actually really pleased with the balance I’ve developed between being guarded and trusting, and it’s something I’m always fine-tuning. My tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt might prevent me from fully honing my red-flag-detecting abilities, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never marry another guy who calls me an idiot — to my face, on a dating website, or otherwise.